Lengthy transition ahead for the next University president

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President Mary Sue Coleman during the announcement of Mark Schlissel as the next University President Buy this photo

By Claire Bryan, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 24, 2014

University President Mary Sue Coleman didn’t become one of the nation’s 10 best college presidents overnight.

When Coleman arrived in Ann Arbor, she faced many hurdles, as will the University president-elect Mark Schlissel when he assumes office this summer.

In her March 2003 inauguration speech, Coleman addressed the pending lawsuits against the University, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, cases that challenged the University’s admissions policies and made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That fall, Coleman had to remain vocal about the University’s vision for diversity and affirmative action. Coleman also had to define herself as a prominent leader, as the first female president of the University and one of only a few females at the time leading the nation’s most prestigious universities.

During the reception after her speech, The Michigan Daily reported Coleman instantly connected with professors, alumni and students. People commented on how welcoming and approachable Coleman was with everyone she met.

“She has that personal direct feeling for people,” former Business Prof. Jim Holmes said in a 2003 interview.

But by the next fall, students were not as impressed.

In a September 2003 editorial, The Daily’s editorial staff criticized Coleman for making no effort to be active among student groups, failing to fill key administrative posts and lacking any clear ideas for the future of the University.

“(Coleman) has thus far been unsuccessful in enhancing the University’s intellectual atmosphere,” the editorial read. “Coleman seems intent on avoiding controversy that would challenge both faculty and students.”

When former University President James Duderstadt entered his presidency in 1988, he said his leadership team took pride not only in keeping the University on track during the transition, but also in beginning to make progress on issues of race relations and resource allocation.

“I had begun to define and put into place the key themes that would characterize my administration: diversity, globalization and/or evolution into a knowledge-driven society,” Duderstadt wrote in his 2007 book, ”The View from the Helm”.

Duderstadt wrote that he was tasked with pressing matters right away, adding that once his presidency was announced he was tasked with mediating any long-term decisions.

“First, there was a very rapid transfer of power from Harold Shapiro to me,” Duderstadt wrote. “Although Shapiro was determined to serve until the end of the year … anyone either on or off the campus who needed a decision or a commitment that would last beyond Shapiro’s final months came to me.”

As the University has awaited the selection of the next president during the final year of her term, Coleman has been forced to confront an array of challenges that will likely continue into the next presidency.

On Monday, the Black Student Union continued their #BBUM campaign with a protest on the steps of Hill Auditorium, calling on the administration to meet seven demands for improving race relations on campus.

As part of those demands, the group stressed the need for an increase in minority enrollment, a task challenged by Proposal 2, the 2006 Michigan ballot initiative that banned the use of race in college admissions just a few years into Coleman’s term.

Though Coleman will continue to grapple with the botched launch of the shared services initiative, the #BBUM campaign and the $4 billion Victors for Michigan fundraising campaign among other challenges, the new president will likely inherit a host of unfinished business.

Additionally, the next president will likely name candidates for multiple high-level University posts. Both the position of LSA dean and vice president for research are currently filled by interim officials, and University Provost Pollack’s contract lasts only two years, since the new president has the authority to appoint the provost.

In an October interview with the Daily, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, said the leadership team, such as deans and executive officers, must keep the University moving forward during the transition.

“People who are really good at what they do — and I think the leadership team here is really good — know how to keep going while you recalibrate,” Harper said. “It’s kind of like you keep your eye on the horizon where you’re trying to go, realizing that what comes up on the horizon changes and so then you adjust as that happens.”

In an interview Sunday, Schlissel said he will soon begin making a series of visits to campus every few weeks for a couple of days. He will also speak on the phone with department chairs, deans and executive officers throughout the transition process.

Additionally, Schlissel said he has promised to meet with the student government organizations and has plans to engage with students across campus.

“And it’s going to take a while,” Schlissel said. “I still have a day job. I’m still the provost at Brown. And as a matter of personal integrity, I’m going to work as hard as I can on behalf of Brown until the end of the semester. That being said, I’m certainly going to devote as much time as I can preparing for July when this very large responsibility becomes mine.”

He also said he hopes to host fireside chats and an open house once he moves into the President’s House, in addition to meeting students and staff at sports events and performances.

“I’m sure that during timeouts and half time hopefully I can schmooze with students,” Schlissel said. “I’m going to go to performances and really try to be a physical presence on the campus as well so there will be a lot of informal opportunities to talk to students.”